Gongol.com Archives: April 2024

Brian Gongol

April 2024
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April 3, 2024

News Lost and found

A metal seal once used to mark a Papal decree has been discovered in Poland, more than 650 years after it was lost in transit. It is a fair assumption that the matter contained under the seal was thought to be important in its time; after all, it had been issued by the Pope, who was then (as now) a tremendously influential individual. ■ The decree itself is lost to history, and the artifact so recently discovered is partially missing. It's not even clear who was Pope when it was issued, sometime between 1303 and 1352. On the early end of that window, it could have been Benedict XI -- a full five Popes Benedict before the present day. ■ That should probably give us a lesson in the present, when people obsess over trending news and "going viral". Everyone gets only a limited time on Earth, and even the entire lives of some of the most notable people on the planet are often little more than a historical footnote. It's not nihilism to acknowledge that; it's merely historical literacy. Putting some perspective on the scurrying and attention-seeking of the present is just an application of reasonable humility. ■ And yet, even if much of what appears to be vitally important now is likely to be forgotten some centuries hence, perhaps that makes the thrust of our behavior even more important. What's written in a papal bull may be of no enduring consequence. But whether an individual chooses to treat a child with nurturing patience, a stranger with grace, a friend with timely concern, or a parent with honor really does push the world in the right direction. ■ Those encounters are often remembered -- usually only within one generation, but their consequences multiply as they become the lessons taught to the next generation and the virtues held up as models for emulation. Countless biographies (and eulogies) have pivoted on significant turning points in life brought about by a single person's good works. And many others have hinged on avoidable pain imposed by others as well. Those acts may rarely leave artifacts behind for people to uncover with metal detectors, but in the grand scheme of things, they probably matter a lot more than those that do.

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April 5, 2024

A new book has entered circulation with an aggressive take on an old assumption: That country folk are a grave threat to city folk. Some have already undertaken methodical rebuttals of the details, but the premise itself needs to be challenged. ■ Rural and urban interests have sometimes diverged by a great deal; look no further than the history of the Federal Reserve to see a tangible example still around today. The Secretary of Agriculture was one of three members on the committee who set up the districts, because farmers need access to lots of bank credit. The Secretary of Commerce was not on the committee, and there was no HUD Secretary to enlist. ■ But America's geography is considerably more homogenized, socially and economically, than it was a century ago. Every state and every community comes with its own unique features, but the differences in material experience are pretty flat. 75% of Americans live within 10 miles of a Target store, and 90% are within 10 miles of a Walmart. Amazon packages go everywhere, satellite broadband access penetrates where fiber and cable lines do not, and there is no urban/rural divide in Netflix access. ■ But whereas rural and urban places really aren't as presumptively different as they once were, there is a sharp divide among those parts of America that are ascending, those that are stagnant, and those in decline. In those areas that are stagnant or in decline, the resulting feelings of resentment are a real problem -- whether those places are urban, suburban, exurban, or rural. ■ The symptoms are easy to identify, but the root causes can be excruciating to fix. Are houses in decay because of external circumstances or because of household laziness? Are students performing badly in school because the teachers are subpar or because the students lack motivation? Are Main Street storefronts empty because the shopowners ran into a tough economy or because the owners didn't try to keep up with the times? The uncertainties can make it distinctly hard to find responsive policies. But making prejudicial assumptions doesn't get us any closer.

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April 7, 2024

News Big game energy

For the entire history of mass media up until now, the default order has always been to report men's sports first and women's sports second (if at all). With the exceptional popularity of the University of Iowa's women's basketball team, we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of that order. ■ Iowa's tournament games have beaten the ratings for almost all professional sports in the past year -- including the World Series and the NBA Finals. That's an exceptional turn of events. ■ It speaks to the indisputably transformative talent on display, of course. Yet it also points to the fact that when we want to see changes in the world, it's not enough to assume that money is the only element that matters. ■ Funding will always matter, but people's willingness to apply and refine their own skills do, too. But there is also the wholly unquantifiable element of human energy: Call it drive, will, momentum, spark, or something else, there's a characteristic that breaks the inertia of inaction and pushes people to do better. ■ Women athletes have been demonstrating terrific skill for decades. But the requisite energy is showing up in unprecedented ways. The world's most dominant individual athlete is the incredible Simone Biles. Women's wrestling is the fastest-growing sport in high schools. And the most-recognized player in college basketball is Iowa's Caitlin Clark (and there are two other women among the top five). The energy is on the side of reshuffling the old order.

Health Smaller families and tougher care choices

Japan is finding itself in a demographic trouble spot, with a labor market that is almost entirely employed, but a shrinking population of working-age people. The country's overall population is shrinking at a -0.41% annual rate, and the country has roughly one retiree for every two people of working age. ■ The United States is more youthful in many ways (with a ratio of about half as many retirees to working-age people, for example), but we're at risk of some similar hazards. Our birth rate isn't very high, and without our comparatively high rate of incoming migration, we could be facing a pretty alarming set of figures, too. ■ What's worth noting is that while much of the attention to birth and immigration rates tends to focus on the labor market, the consequences are no less important for the basic aspects of old-age care. Large families have traditionally been a source of social security (in the generic sense), and considerably smaller families will have to deal with their elders in different ways than in the past. ■ This could, paradoxically, make extended-family relations more important than when families tended to be much larger. We cannot just assume that there will be enough workers to adequately staff retirement homes, or that the funding will be readily available to outsource that care. ■ One in five families with children are raising lone offspring. That's bound to have consequences down the line, when care decisions (and other choices) have to be made on behalf of elderly relatives. It's not unlikely that nieces and nephews will end up caring for aunts and uncles, or that cousins will need to step in as de-facto brothers and sisters for one another, far more often than was the case when US households used to average nearly 6 people. ■ These are the factors that don't get captured in reports on workforce alone, and they're masked as well when immigration matters so heavily to net population growth. Japan may be well ahead of the United States in the changing tide of big-country population figures, but it's important to note some of the vital ways in which we're already likely to experience parallel trends. There are only so many ways in which robots will be able to "care" for us in the future.

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April 8, 2024

Weather and Disasters Securing power from the wind

In response to an unbelievable wind forecast, Xcel Energy deliberately shut off the power to 55,000 customers in Colorado (especially in the Denver and Boulder areas). At least another 100,000 lost power due to wind damage. ■ The windstorm itself was exceptional: The peak recorded gust was 97 mph, with lots of other gusts recorded well in excess of 70 mph. Nature served up its worst, to be sure. ■ But the decision to actively shut down the power grid is a reflection of the reasonable concern over the fire threat posed by the winds. It was just a little over two years ago that a devastating fire ripped through the Boulder area. That fire was almost certainly caused by a broken power line. ■ The power grid as we know it relies upon a huge amount of above-ground transmission. Burial would self-evidently reduce the risk of damage from wind events, but it's a tremendously expensive undertaking and may be entirely infeasible for high-voltage transmission. Air is a resistor, while the ground is a conductor. The job can be done, but it can't be done on the cheap. ■ Society is going to have to figure out whether it's worth expecting utility companies to bear the much higher cost of prevention: They won't bear those costs alone, and the implicit social contract between regulated utilities and the public requires that the public's demands not come at the expense of bankrupting the energy companies. Wildfires caused by power lines are a cost, too, and simply shutting down the electricity when winds are strong seems like an inelegant long-term solution to the problem.

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April 10, 2024

News Deduct your cash but not your services

Certain problems are vexing because they create plain and evident negative consequences -- but there is no clear evidence that any possible solution for those consequences won't be equally bad. A good example rears its head every tax season. ■ Economists will note that a market-clearing price can be found for most any good or service. It may be high, it may be low. It may come with externalities. But the price exists. And thus our society is prone to financializing most things. We tend to believe that charitable donations are a good thing, so we incentivize them by offering tax deductions. ■ In general, charity and welfare tend to be distributed most efficiently in the form of cash or cash-like transfers. While this isn't universally true (school lunch subsidies are a relatively clear counter-example), most of the time, it's better for recipients to get something they can allocate on their own. That's what makes the Earned Income Tax Credit broadly popular on both the left and the right. ■ But the opposite can be true on the other end: While cash payments are often better than goods for the receiver, it is sometimes (and perhaps even often) better for a donor to give in the form of services rather than cash. People with high-value skills can often do a lot more good by donating those skills "pro bono publico" than they might by earning income and then donating some of it as cash. ■ The tax code, however, rewards cash donations but does not reward the value of in-kind donations of services. This sets up a perverse set of incentives: The higher then value of the in-kind services one might donate, the lower the relative incentive to donate them pro-bono. Thus, an attorney who bills out at $300 an hour and takes home $100 of that $300 would have to work for three hours just to bring home the income to buy her own services on behalf of a charity. If that seems wholly inefficient, it's the fault of the tax code. ■ The lack of deductibility, of course, doesn't preclude accountants, attorneys, architects, engineers, doctors, nurses, dentists, graphic designers, computer programmers, and countless others from donating their high-value services. But the inconsistency of making their cash donations tax-deductible while offering no such incentive for their pro-bono services is counterproductive -- especially in an economy substantially dominated by the production of services. ■ The obvious case against permitting the value of in-kind service donations to be deducted is that it could open the door to considerable abuse. This is particularly vexatious because elite service providers are often well worth the price, and disincentivizing them from donating pro-bono services sets the entire charitable sector behind. Sometimes the sector gets access to those elite services anyway, but oftentimes it does not.

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April 11, 2024

Threats and Hazards Waiting won't help

The Battle of Britain lasted four months, from July to October of 1940. It was this air battle that gave history the memorable words of Winston Churchill: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few". Britain's successful self-defense in the campaign was imperative to preventing Germany from carrying out an invasion, and it ensured that Britain could enlist the aid of the United States, first quietly, then with a roar after Pearl Harbor. ■ Ukraine has been under assault from Russia -- by both land and air -- for more than two years. The US Ambassador there reports that "Last night Russia launched more than 40 drones and 40 missiles into Ukraine. Kharkiv's critical infrastructure alone was struck by 10 missiles, and other cities including Lviv and Zaporizhzhia were impacted. The situation in Ukraine is dire; there is not a moment to lose." ■ It is a different conflict from the propeller-driven dogfights of World War II, yet it's much the same. Terrorism from the skies and unprovoked destruction of essential civilian infrastructure (like the missile attack that just destroyed Kyiv's largest power plant) are barbarous and uncivilized. ■ America's conscience was ultimately stirred by the suffering of the British people, but it still took too much pleading before our allies got the help they needed. Barbarians don't stop fighting out of goodwill; they keep going until it becomes evident that the costs are too high to go on. Ukraine has shown extraordinary willingness to stand for itself -- the missiles have been falling for six times as long as the Battle of Britain, and yet it still fights. ■ The United States could supply vital ammunition and air defense aid, but that requires Congressional action soon. Nothing will get easier or cheaper just by waiting, nor will the barbarians let up until they are repelled. The only way to be confident that the rest of Europe won't come under similar assault is for Ukraine to have a decisive and just defense.

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April 12, 2024

Threats and Hazards It's only protest if it's peaceful

After threatening members of the Bakersfield City Council with murder in their own homes, a woman was arrested and tossed into jail. She has entered a plea of "not guilty" in response to 18 felony charges. ■ In polite news coverage, she is being called a "protester". That is a disservice to the language. Protest has a long and honorable history; threats of personal violence do not. ■ There is a strain of behavior in public life that chooses to catastrophize issues at every turn. A little piece of it can be found in every use of warnings like, "This is the most important election of our lifetime." And it routinely escalates from there. ■ The problem with this pattern is twofold: First, the chronic catastrophization of all things political turns some people into antisocial lunatics who think all ends must justify any means. (If it's always the "most important", then compromise, persuasion, and incrementalism have no real hope.) ■ Second, it blurs the line between words and actions. We have to be able to exchange words freely with people so that we can contain even our strongest feelings within civilized boundaries. ■ People who threaten to bring physical harm to city councilmembers, governors, and even Vice Presidents, actively surrender their right to remain in society until they can cool down and find their behavior corrected. Threats of violence aren't protest, they are terrorism.

Computers and the Internet Aligned with our machines

In 1781, Alexander Hamilton gave us a beautiful line that seems to have perfectly anticipated our technology-saturated world: "Nothing is more common than for men to pass from the abuse of a good thing, to the disuse of it." We find it easy to believe the worst about new technologies because it is easy to imagine how we might abuse them in our own self-interest. But those cases are often oversold. ■ Nobody has much difficulty in imagining how generative artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to make it easier to cheat in high school and college classrooms. A technology made for the purpose of imitating human language has pretty obvious utility for doing things like writing essays. ■ The good news is that artificial intelligence doesn't appear to be increasing rates of cheating. (The bad news is that cheating was already widely self-reported long before AI came into the picture.) ■ But there are prospective dangers ahead that will undoubtedly lurk in the shadows of AI use, which is why the issue of AI alignment is so important. Requiring technology to serve human interests requires developing a lot of rules and definitions around hard questions like the classic, "What does it mean to be human?" ■ It would be a cruel irony if, while we are in the phase of "abuse of a good thing", we were to err on the side of ignorance in our approach to AI alignment, simply because too many people proved too impatient for their own good and failed to study enough of the humanities to become good technologists down the road.

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April 13, 2024

Weather and Disasters Faulty glasses wreck eclipse viewing

An Ohio village bought 1,500 sets of eclipse-viewing glasses for the community, but they were defective and nobody knew until the big moment arrived. And it's not like, for instance, a snafu at the Fourth of July parade when everyone involved can just say, "We'll make up for it next year". It's going to be a long wait for the next eclipse. ■ The intriguing question is whether the supplier of the faulty glasses had an honest mistake (albeit one which should have been caught during some kind of quality-control process), or whether it was a scam from the start (based on the assumption that the buyers would have no real recourse). ■ This is one of the reasons brand names and reputations are still important, even when it's possible to buy just about anything online from low-cost suppliers. Who are manufacturers like "NoCry" and "Melasa" and "Medical King"? The answer is: Who knows? But they're selling "eclipse glasses" online. ■ The other side of the brand-name coin is that trustworthy brands ought to be able to command a reasonable premium for their products -- but not expect an extortionary one. 20% to 30% seems like a fair premium that most people would be willing to pay, much of the time, for the assurance of a reliable brand name when two products appear to be equivalents. Search costs are real, after all. ■ Sometimes a brand is preserved not in the avoidance of failure, but in how they demonstrate a commitment to repairing the damage. Johnson & Johnson's decisive response to the 1982 Tylenol poisonings in Chicagoland is the gold standard in this area. With infrequently-bought products (like eclipse glasses), it's much harder to search for quality in the absence of strong brand reputations. Regrettably for the people of Orange, Ohio, it's going to be a long time before they get to try again.


April 17, 2024

Threats and Hazards We don't have the luxury of insignificance

America periodically goes through fits of isolationistic fervor. The present one has made for a strange alignment of interests as the Speaker of the House tries to weather a challenge to his office while pressing for a package to supply military aid to friendly countries under fire. ■ Assuming the best (that is, assuming that opponents of the aid packages are genuine in their disagreement and not willing accomplices of hostile governments), this moment echoes previous instances during which the thought of providing material support to other countries was challenged on the grounds that their problems aren't ours. ■ Yet, time and time again, the United States has been forced to reconcile our innate preference to be left alone (and to stick to matters like our domestic economy) with the reality that we do, in fact, share a place on this planet with a much larger global population -- and that our influence is magnified by our wealth and power. Just 1 out of every 24 Earthlings is an American, but our economy accounts for 1/4th of the entire planet's economic activity. We are similarly over-represented in practically every other metric of influence, from the size of our military to the reach of our cultural outputs. ■ Almost 125 years ago, Theodore Roosevelt addressed the State of the Union to Congress for the first time. In that report, he remarked, "Owing to the rapid growth of our power and our interests on the Pacific, whatever happens in China must be of the keenest national concern to us." ■ At the time, America's "power" and "interests" were still merely a fraction of their size today. And yet Roosevelt, who was addressing China's Boxer Rebellion, still regarded American engagement with the world abroad as a matter worthy of the highest levels of public attention. It may have been self-serving, and it likely reflected undertones of lamentable racial prejudices. But it was also a realistic assessment that even a nascent global power couldn't just look away when matters took place overseas and far away. Our power and interests are vastly greater today. ■ Problems that start abroad often fail to stay there. We have the capacity to make matters better or to make them worse -- only judicious consideration and strategic thinking can decide where we end up. But nobody, especially not those in high public office, should get away with thinking that our inaction or disengagement counts as inert. America doesn't have the luxury of being unimportant, and that means every choice has consequences -- even the choice to take no action.

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April 18, 2024

News Juror identities and secret ballots

While Americans are fairly well-versed in the importance of the secret ballot, it's worth reiterating why individuals have an interest in keeping their own ballots secret, even when they're proud to support a candidate or a party. Ballot secrecy is important, even for the proud, because we cannot distinguish the ballot photo shared out of pride from the ballot photo shared out of coercion. ■ An abusive spouse, a bad boss, or a crooked union steward might compel another person to wear a lapel pin, apply a bumper sticker, or show up at a rally. Those are bad circumstances, to be sure, but if the ballot is always kept completely secret, then the individual's conscience should always be secure to prevail where it ultimately matters the most. Laws can only go so far -- social norms have to play a part, too. ■ Likewise, the anonymity of the jury is a vital public interest, and one that can only be maintained through a combination of laws and habits. Just as it's understandable that individual voters might be excited to show off their ballots, it's understandable that intrepid reporters might be eager to report on the makeup of a "jury of one's peers". ■ But it's just as important for a jury to maintain secrecy as for a ballot to be kept under wraps, and for similar reasons. If a crooked prosecutor, an unhinged defendant, or a compromised witness wanted to influence the outcome of a trial, they could cause trouble in all sorts of ways. But anonymity provides at least some defensive moat against that kind of compulsion. ■ A handful of journalists have already said far too much about the jury pool in the New York trial of a former President. They have revealed information sufficient enough to narrow down individual juror identities to small numbers -- with descriptions that might only apply to a dozen individuals. Those reporters should stop -- not because the law compels them, but because norms should.

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April 20, 2024

Computers and the Internet Apple's iPhone exclusivity isn't the place for the Senate

(Video) Sen. Elizabeth Warren has released a video whose tone might be earnest, but also possibly tongue-in-cheek, decrying Apple's handling of text messages from non-iPhone users to those using iMessage. It is true that Apple uses cues (like a jarring color) to single out those off-brand users. And it's true that some iPhone users are inclined to keep their Android-using friends out of certain chats. ■ But is it the kind of overreach that justifies a United States Senator vowing to "break up Apple's 'monopoly'" over a "stranglehold on the smartphone market", when Apple has a sub-60% market share? That's not a literal monopoly. Its practices may be anti-competitive, but are they really illegally so? ■ It's not as though iMessage has an exclusive hold over the messaging market more generally -- there's Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Bluesky, Mastodon, Snapchat, Telegram, Skype, WhatsApp, and Google Chat, just to name a few. Several of them have more than 25% penetration in the US market. ■ People are free to migrate wherever their preferences take them. And those providers are free to offer exclusive features to attract users. Similar complaints could have been lodged against AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ a couple of decades ago, and look where they are now. ■ For those who truly feel left out of iPhone chats, but who don't want to surrender Androids as their primary phones, a prepaid phone plan for $15 a month and an unlocked, refurbished iPhone can be had for $150 or less. That's not free, but it's also not very much to pay to avoid the fear of missing out. ■ The mystique of government intervention as the way to alleviate even low-grade social conflicts really ought to be avoided. Excessive interference with ordinary market evolution tends to be wasteful and inefficient, slows the work of natural market reactions to consumer demands, and turns society weak and flabby.

Threats and Hazards Stopping the fire before it spreads

Members of Congress have been dropping hints that they've been told unspeakably bad things about what the Kremlin wants to do in Europe. Considering the incomprehensible barbarity of what his army has already done, unprovoked, to Ukraine, it must have been at once both highly persuasive and deeply astonishing in its depravity. When the Speaker of the House says he'd rather be taken down by rebellious party members than see Putin "continue to march through Europe if he were allowed", that's saying something.

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April 21, 2024

Computers and the Internet Can Congress really banish TikTok?

It's a question with two different thorny answers. One is legal: The prospect of banishing a particular company by name through legislation isn't exactly an obvious slam-dunk. It's obviously going to be an issue for the courts to decide after much tempest. ■ The other is technical: The whole point of the Internet is that it evades easy control. The lessons of the Napster era, the dark web, and the mass-marketing of virtual private networks (VPNs) demonstrate that evasion of authority is a defining characteristic rather than a niche concern of the digital world. ■ That doesn't mean the application or its owner are benign, nor that they should be trusted or even used. If the parent company isn't demonstrably and actively collecting user information for nefarious purposes, it still most certainly could be. ■ The main problem isn't the content, though there are very good reasons to be concerned about what decentralized mass-scale disinformation campaigns could achieve in adversarial hands. The central problem is the collection and ownership of user data. Chinese agencies have been after American data on the biggest scale possible. We don't have to know why they're collecting the data, how they're storing it, or how they might put it to use. The collection itself is cause enough for suspicion. ■ American authorities would be daffy to ignore the possibility of massive surveillance facilitated by tech companies based in China. That doesn't excuse xenophobic questioning or unconstitutional overreach. But it does demand exceptional scrutiny. ■ Ideally, Americans would heed the warnings voluntarily and cease using the app out of enlightened self-interest. But if that's not to be the case, then perhaps it's inevitable that the imperfect remedy of legislation will be tested. The legal and technical challenges, though, should make it evident that the work is far from over.

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April 22, 2024

Science and Technology Good to hear from you again

NASA shares the good news that they have managed to re-establish a data link with Voyager 1. A computer chip on the probe went bad in November, and it's taken until now to implement a solution. ■ Voyager is a fascinating project, having been launched in 1977 and now officially in interstellar space. That the equipment is working at all after more than 40 years of motion and cosmic radiation is pretty amazing. ■ But it should really command some admiration that people on the Voyager team at NASA committed the effort to figure out a way around the hardware problem and re-program the chip from 15 billion miles away. It says something about the natural curiosity of our species that we want to know what's out there, so far away, and that we're willing to try some pretty challenging things to figure it out. Someday those signals will probably be lost for good, but for now, Voyager lives to transmit for another day (whatever that means once you're beyond the reach of your home star).

News Stop torturing poets

If we could speak to the animals, nobody would tell the whales to stop singing. Whale song is one of the fascinating aspects of biology that tells us that many of our human instincts are shared by other intelligent animals, which doesn't diminish them as aspects of humanity but rather elevates the other members of the animal kingdom. ■ But back to the whales: If it were possible to communicate with them, Dr. Dolittle-like, surely no human would tell the whales to shut up and wait for an individual to wander off and come back later with a new song to sing. Yet that is approximately how we treat human music. ■ Implicit in the very title of "The Tortured Poets Department" is the widely-accepted myth that creative people must suffer for their art (even if it becomes a smashing commercial success). But what if that is utter balderdash? ■ What if the forces that build anticipation around the debut of an album, a show, a novel, or a painting are in fact entrenching a deeply unhealthy relationship between humans and our artistic instincts? ■ There's no doubt that some creators are at their best when using art to work through difficult times -- it's hard to imagine Fiona Apple minus raw existentialism -- but maybe we unintentionally burden artists with the expectation that they should only release the work that tortured them, and simultaneously deny ordinary people an outlet so natural that whales experience it for free. ■ Perhaps they would tell us that we are ridiculous to expect art to go hand-in-hand with suffering or to confine the creation of art to sporadic releases from a few individuals, rather than engaging in it as a routine rhythm of living. That doesn't mean it can't play a role in struggle (or give rise to it), but maybe we should heed what musicians and writers and cartoonists are able to do when they surrender to speed rather than self-torture.

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April 24, 2024

News "Forethought, shrewdness, self-restraint"

In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt delivered a Presidential speech in his home state of New York, in which he pleaded with his fellow Americans to remain worthy of the republic they had so fortunately inherited. "Many qualities are needed by a people which would preserve the power of self-government in fact as well as in name," he encouraged. "Among these qualities are forethought, shrewdness, self-restraint, the courage which refuses to abandon one's own rights, and the disinterested and kindly good sense which enables one to do justice to the rights of others." ■ American history would be worth studying on its own merely for the fascinating story it tells. But it's enormously practical to study, as well. For as much as the country is the product of an idea -- an abstraction about people and self-government that takes shape around a couple of documents from the 1700s -- it's also the product of events that are as much a part of the experiment in self-government as the hypothesis that people can govern themselves. ■ One of the major concerns of Roosevelt's time was the threat of anarchist violence; an anarchist had assassinated William McKinley in 1901. And yet, that anarchist movement instigated Roosevelt to argue that "A healthy republican government must rest upon individuals, not upon classes or sections. As soon as it becomes government by a class or by a section, it departs from the old American ideal." ■ Those words hardly seem out of place today, particularly not at a moment when mass protests centered on group identities have made some universities tense and even threatening places to be. We're no less subject to those same pressures identified by Roosevelt some twelve decades ago than Americans were at his time. That the country endured through its trouble then is a good sign that we can weather difficulty today. But it doesn't happen without individuals choosing to be better than some of our lesser impulses would try to make us.

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April 26, 2024

Computers and the Internet A priesthood of electronics

Few reactions are more reliable about flying right in the face of the evidence than the assumption that technological progress will lead to widespread and chronic unemployment for human beings. Technology will always bring about employment changes at the margins, but it also invariably scratches new itches and reveals brand-new preferences. ■ When tractors displaced horses, some losses were felt among oat farmers and farriers, but a great deal of work was created in factories, service and repair shops, implement dealerships, and countless other directly related industries, not to mention vast numbers of second-order industries. ■ Despite its many intriguing promises, artificial intelligence has no hope of permanently displacing as many jobs as it will ultimately create. Take, for instance, the case of "Justin", the "virtual Catholic apologist". ■ As an experiment in artificial intelligence, it's an interesting one: A chatbot programmed to answer questions about religious faith. After some initial missteps in how it was rolled out, the "Justin" persona has been changed from that of a priest to a lay theologian. ■ Aside from the many questions that might be asked about theology delivered by artificial intelligence, it should be noted that the technology itself probably reveals or even generates more questions than it could begin to answer. Can an artificial intelligence engine have a soul? Is it permissible to represent the thoughts of a real person using an artificial technology? If a novel claim is pronounced by an artificial intelligence, what would signal whether it was divinely inspired? Is there a literal deus ex machina? ■ The questions are certain to become vastly more numerous than they were before the technology existed: In effect, a make-work program for theologians. No matter how technology reconfigures human work, there will always be new puzzles to solve -- many of them generated by the new technologies being used, ostensibly, to save labor. From those puzzles alone, we can be assured that humans will never be made obsolete.

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April 27, 2024

Threats and Hazards Long memories

China's efforts to demolish the structure of individual rights in Hong Kong is a naked display of power being used to stifle dissent. But it may not just be a reaction to contemporary conditions on the ground: It turns out that nearly a century ago, the Communist partisans trying to subvert the existing republic in China used Hong Kong as a key point for getting resources to their forces inside the mainland. ■ The strategic choice to try to muzzle Hong Kong entirely seems from the outside like a colossal waste. As a special territory whose embrace of a liberal regime of laws had made it exceptionally wealthy by comparison with the rest of the country (and the world), it seemed like Hong Kong was a jewel worthy of preservation. ■ But perhaps those intergenerational memories were enough to convince China's regime that they didn't want anyone trying to get away with the things their predecessors had already done as revolutionaries themselves. That wouldn't reveal strategic foresight so much as an age-old instinct to pull up the ladder behind yourself. Regrettably, 7 million people are forced to live with the consequences.

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April 29, 2024

News The case for more teamwork

The American Enterprise Institute has published a paper which estimates that China is spending much more on its military than the country publicly reports, and even more than the intelligence community serving the United States has openly estimated. The estimated amount is very similar to what the US itself devotes to military spending, and far more than Russia, which has the world's third-largest defense budget. ■ Spending alone doesn't amount to a guarantee of results; the Soviet Union spent prodigiously on its military and all it got in the end was bankruptcy and collapse. But seeing a country run by a regime with hostile habits and intentions raise the stakes like that should be enough to alert the United States that now is an essential time to build and keep good alliances. ■ In so many ways, the US is capable of unilateral action. That's what having a quarter of the entire planet's GDP will buy. But capability isn't the same as strategy. ■ Strategically, we need mutual commitments. Not deals that merely reward us for having the upper hand or that hold a sword of Damocles over our counterparties, like China's government has been so fond of implementing. Contrary to the empty-headed hostility to cooperative action expressed by some isolationists, our best hopes lie in engaging with friendly countries on win-win terms. ■ And where we can advance the rule of law, individual liberty, and a decent respect for human rights by making new or deeper diplomatic friendships, we should. The deeper the global reservoirs of goodwill and commitment to liberal values, the higher the costs to adversaries who would try to harm the order which those values sustain.

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April 30, 2024

News Proportions beat categorical imperatives

If you return home one day to find that a bird has built a nest in the way of your front door, you face a choice. You could get rid of the nest or move it to a less inconvenient spot. Or you might decide to use a different door until the eggs in the nest hatch and the baby birds fly away. That choice isn't an obligation, but it might be considered the act of a mensch -- a person of honor worth emulating in the world. ■ To wait for the natural cycle of hatchlings from one nest might be good. But ten nests would be too many. And abandoning the front door forever just to permit an endless cycle of birds to nest there would likewise be going too far. Besides the inconvenience of surrendering your own door, you might come to create dependency for the birds and a nuisance for the neighbors. ■ Nearly every good thing is a matter of proportions. Patience and forbearance are good; becoming a doormat is not. Generosity is good; giving to the point of self-impoverishment is not. Vitamin supplements can be good for health; but even vitamins can become toxic in excessive doses. ■ Too many people subscribe to an assumption that all things are subject to categorical imperatives. This leads to a troubling habit of escalation, as people try to apply their absolute certainty over rights and wrongs, using whatever means they find necessary. ■ Fundamentalism or absolutism of almost any stripe is incompatible with an understanding that goodness is virtually always a matter of proportions. There are boundaries around both our understanding of the facts and our capacity to make unconditional rules. ■ Political fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, ethical or moral fundamentalism -- any approach that requires an abandonment of scale and the adoption of fixed, immutable rules -- collides with the reality that conditions matter, even if they make our human choices messier. "It depends" tends to be a much less implicitly satisfying answer than a categorical imperative, but in the overwhelming preponderance of circumstances, "It depends" is right.

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